Titanic is not particularly a good musical, but you could be forgiven that it is a great one with this compact staging, thrilling in-your-face performances and soaring vocals. It has just opened at the Southwark Playhouse and notwithstanding the cliches and the endless statistics (ok the largest ship of its time no doubt needs 42,000 fresh eggs) it is still makes for a worthwhile expedition to see this musical presented in London for the first time.
Under the direction of Thom Southerland, the bare essentials of the show are presented here, up close with an exceptional six-piece orchestra under the musical direction Mark Aspinall. Cast members seamlessly double as first, second or third class passengers or crew members within a blink of the eye. It is amazing to see a cast working so hard to keep things (er) afloat and even assemble parts of the ship right before you.
The staging is right into the audience with an upper level that doubles as the bridge. Presenting the characters only a few feet away from you makes it hard not to be impressed by them, particularly when you see them working so hard and the beads of sweat forming on their foreheads and necks. And after the rousing opening chorus (which almost got a standing ovation when it finished) you felt like you wanted to climb aboard with them. While this small-scale production does not generate spectacle, the scenes involving the lowering of the lifeboat or the listing of the ship are evocative and intense, with sound effects and simple movements creating the atmosphere and emotion. Many audience members were visibly moved.
The only thing disappointing about the show is the piece itself. Titanic the musical opened on Broadway in the late nineties and was expected to be a mega-flop. But through a combination of interest in the subject matter and canny marketing the production managed to have a decent run and even win the Tony Award for Best Musical. The story however is so well known now thanks to a movie that opened within a year of the show, that not much counts as a surprise. And when facts and figures are substituted for characterisation and emotion it makes for a slow night of musical theatre.
The music by Maury Yeston, who wrote the musical Nine (and bits of Grand Hotel) manages the soaring choruses particularly well. At times the music evokes the period with ragtime and Irish melodies in an acknowledgement to the subject matter. The number between the boiler man and the signal man talking about their girlfriends back home is particularly memorable, but other times it feels like a series of cliches set to music with as much subtlety as an episode of Downton Abbey.
But then again Downton Abbey and all things of that period are very fashionable at the moment. And if you have never been to Southwark Playhouse in their new temporary venue towards Elephant and Castle, it is worth a trip to see it for some ingenuity and economy of staging and some wonderful performances rise above the source material.
*** (three stars)
The Rosie O'Donnell show circa 1997 shows the opening number (albeit surrounded by a bemused audience), however the effect is similar to what happens at the Southwark Playhouse with the actors very close to the audience singing their hearts out...
Photo credit: Titanic company photo by Annabel Vere